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David Douglas: Botanist par excellence

For the week of Monday July 25, 2005

On June 25, 1799, botanist David Douglas was born at Scone, Scotland. Douglas did much more in his career than lend his name to a majestic tree, the Douglas fir. He went on three exploratory trips in North America, during which he identified and classified a large number of botanical and zoological specimens. Douglas thus played an important role in botanical exploration in North America, especially in the Pacific Northwest. He was also the first European to botanize British Columbia.

David Douglas
David Douglas.
© Courtesy of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA.
As a child, David Douglas was fascinated by plants and natural history. With little interest in school, Douglas instead became an apprentice in Lord Mansfield’s gardens at Scone in 1811. This work gave free rein to his passion for plants. In 1820, Douglas was accepted at the Glasgow Botanic Garden, where he pursued his studies in botany.

In 1823, the young David Douglas joined the Horticultural Society of London and was sent to North America, and the northeastern United States specifically, to criss‑cross the region and gather specimens that were still unknown in Britain. During his trip, he made it as far as Windsor in Upper Canada. He returned to Britain on December 12 of the same year, having successfully completed his task.

Douglas returned to America the following year on another assignment for the Horticultural Society. This time, he explored the Pacific Northwest, using Fort Vancouver, Washington, as his base. During his many expeditions, Douglas strived to gather and describe as many animal and plant species as possible. He explored the Columbia River basin and went as far as northern California. He returned to Britain in October 1827 with hundreds of specimens and seeds, setting a record with 254 specimens that had never been seen before in Britain. 

Interpretation walk in the Douglas Fir Forest, Kootenay National Park of Canada
Interpretation walk in the Douglas Fir Forest, Kootenay National Park of Canada.
© Parks Canada / W. Lynch / 1988

On October 31, 1829, Douglas sailed again for North America. He returned to the northeastern United Sates, then travelled to California, where he botanized the area between Puget Sound and Santa Barbara. Despite his vision problems, Douglas continued his expeditions, but he had a run of bad luck, and his explorations ended abruptly when he was killed accidentally on July 12, 1834, in Hawaii. David Douglas was designated a National Historic Person in 1979 as a pioneer of botany in western North America.

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